EL PASO — When El Pasoan Kevin Goode saw the latest news about the novel coronavirus over the weekend, he knew what he needed to do Monday: cast his ballot in the 2020 presidential election.
“I was planning on voting anyway but right now, since there are not that many people [here] I thought it would be safer,” he said at Basset Place, a local shopping complex that’s been one of the county’s busiest voting sites during the state’s early voting period. “I would rather do it now, before [the pandemic] got worse."
El Paso County is following two national trends: its voter turnout so far is on pace to overwhelmingly surpass 2016’s numbers. And the number of reported cases of the novel coronavirus here are surging to levels unseen in the seven months since the pandemic first hit Texas.
El Paso is worse off than the rest of the state, however. Area hospitals are at or near capacity and some said over the weekend they are preparing to airlift non-coronavirus patients to other facilities to make room for pandemic-related emergencies. In recent days the state deployed medical personnel and equipment to the region and the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center was converted into an emergency medical site this week to provide additional hospital beds.
The situation in El Paso prompted city leaders to ask residents to stay home unless it’s absolutely necessary to be out in public. And the county judge has issued a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. that comes with the threat of $250 fines for not wearing a face coverings in public and $500 for any other violations of the order.
The latest restrictions have voting groups watching their effect on turnout and what, if any, last-minute pushes they can make to ensure voters continue to venture to the polls.
“Early voting is key and what we’re trying to figure out, is how people can vote safely,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, the founding president of Voto Latino, a Washington-based nonprofit created to increase turnout among Latinos. “They are doing a shutdown [in El Paso] for non-essentials. Voting is essential. What we don’t want to see is that people are creating ordinances that are politicized.”
On Monday El Paso County Elections Administrator Lisa Wise said she didn’t anticipate a noticeable change in turnout given the county’s momentum so far. Several early-voting locations in the county are open until 10 p.m. But Wise said the most people don’t wait that late to cast their ballots.
“We’re still getting high numbers so I have not seen a decline in what we would have seen at this point,” she said. “We’ve had poll workers ask more questions [about "essential" activities] than we’ve received from voters.”
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego encouraged voters to cast their ballots despite the curfew and the surge in COVID-19 cases.
"It’s important for the public to understand that voting is safe and our county elective department has taken steps to ensure the safety and health of El Paso voters," he said during a Sunday evening virtual news conference announcing the latest restrictions.
Monday’s turnout of roughly 9,000 was down from Friday’s turnout of about 10,400, a 14 percent dip. But the decline in El Paso County wasn’t as great as the statewide drop of about 21.5 percent over the same period, according to daily reports from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
Both state parties saw El Paso’s new restrictions as ammunition to use against their opponents. The state’s Democrats said the restrictions were a result of Republicans downplaying the virus.
“There is no reason why people in El Paso should have to go through another shutdown and it’s directly the fault of Donald Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott,” said Abhi Rahman, the Texas Democratic Party spokesman. “The only way to get back [at them] is at the ballot box.”
The state’s Republican party said the local curfew and stay-at-home request would suppress turnout.
“We are concerned. It is called voter suppression,” said Luke Twombly, a party spokesperson.
Richard Pineda, a political scientist and associate professor of communications at the University of Texas El Paso, said the new restrictions could actually motivate more voters who are upset at the local and national handling of the pandemic.
"It’s going to haunt incumbents," Pineda said. "Even with the uptick in cases, if you were already feeling some pinch related to the pandemic you’re still going to go out and vote, whether you’re supportive of a shutdown and curfews and restrictions or if you’re unhappy about them.”
For voters like Melissa Antuna, it wasn’t Trump or Democratic candidate Joe Biden that drove her to cast a ballot. She’s been careful for months, she said, and for good reason.
“I have a 4-month-old at home, so I was trying to vote when there were the least amount of people around me,” she said. “It was my intention because that’s the way I’ve been living my life.”
She also had a message for people planning to skip voting this year.
“If you’re willing to go to a restaurant or store, you can go vote,” she said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso and the Texas Secretary of State have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.